Well it finally happened. Dreamworks Animation finally nailed it. Kung Fu Panda set the bar for the studio as far as I'm concerned, and How to Train Your Dragon raised it.
I feel I should preface this by saying that I had no idea what to expect going into this movie. I hadn't seen many ads or any trailers for it, and barely knew it existed until just a few months ago. I knew nothing of the plot aside from the fact that there were vikings and dragons, and everything I'd seen looked pretty fun and silly. I didn't know Chris Sanders and Dean DeBloise (whose work you might know from Lilo and Stitch-- which I will coincidentally be writing about in my feminism in animation series) were the co-writers and directors, I didn't know anything about the voice casting (surprisingly and refreshingly skimpy on the celebrity names), and I sure didn't expect it to be so moving. Directors like Sanders and Dean, and Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) keep treating their audiences like they actually have brains and emotional intellect, and have studios capable of producing animation quality that backs those things up, hopefully more animation directors will follow suit.
So, having gone into the movie with very little in the way of expectations other than maybe some silly comedy and lots of wisecracks-- it's Dreamworks, after all, that's usually what they base their movies around-- I was not prepared for the movie I actually saw. It had its funny moments, certainly, with nary a fart joke or pop culture reference to be found, but it wasn't a wacky comedy like what I'd been expecting. The story itself is really basic, and yeah there are loads of predictable tropes like 'the coming of age story', 'the geeky guy likes the popular girl', 'a boy and his dog', 'teenager emotionally estranged from parent/s who don't understand him', 'the dork who doesn't fit in because he's too different', and so on. And yeah, one of the big underlying messages of the movie is the typical 'just be true to yourself', but it's actually really underplayed in favor of something that usually gets less focus: 'learning to understand something differently'.
The main character, Hiccup, is from a tribe of Vikings (who speak with Scottish accents for some reason) who raise sheep, build houses, and kill dragons. Mostly the latter, although the house building is tied in with that as well. Their village is constantly raided by dragons who carry off their sheep, and the Vikings are experienced enough with killing them that they have some classifications and techniques for each species, and even have a right of passage tradition that involves training to fight and eventually kill them. Hiccup, a small, skinny teenager who isn't understood or respected by anyone, especially his father, the village leader and big brawny tough guy, wants more than anything to kill a dragon and earn some respect and affection. He isn't strong enough to wield his own weapon, but he's clever enough to design a catapult to do it for him, and manages to down a member of the most mysterious and enigmatic of the dragon species, the Night Fury. When he finally finds the injured dragon, he finds he can't bring himself to kill it, and instead starts observing and eventually befriending it. What he learns about dragon behavior is often at direct odds with what he's being taught in dragon training, but through his understanding of dragon behavior, he's able to rise to the top his class despite his complete lack of warrior prowess.
Meanwhile, he's also figured out how to repair the injury to the dragon-- now named Toothless-- which is able to properly fly again with teamwork. The flight scenes are amazingly well-done, not only because they're beautiful in and of themselves, but because they drive home the beauty of the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. We get to experience the exhilaration they both feel at getting to fly right along with them, and the fear they both feel when they fall. Hiccup's actions have made him responsible for Toothless, and Toothless in turn helps validate Hiccup's unconventional ways and gives him a kind of freedom and perspective he couldn't have achieved on his own. Neither one can reach their full potential without the other, and the flight scenes drive that home beautifully without a word.
I also really liked that they didn't shy away from the potential consequences of Hiccup's actions, and there are some surprises toward the end. In retrospect, they probably shouldn't have been as surprising as they were, but at the same time, it happens so rarely in movies for younger audiences-- or even older ones for that matter-- that it took me off guard. There's a more mature sensibility at the heart of the movie that is refreshing in general, and most certainly so for Dreamworks animation. It's a fun movie, but it's not afraid to get into some more serious issues for the sake of more emotional integrity. I highly recommend seeing it, and especially in 3D, which isn't something I typically recommend. I've never seen a movie in 3D in the theater, and I usually don't feel like I'm missing out on that much, but I do regret not seeing this one in it. I actually forgot it was supposed to be in 3D until I was leaving the theater and saw the sign on the poster that said it was in 2D only. No gratuitous things flying toward the camera for the sake of a gimmick, I get the impression this 3D was used intelligently, to heighten the experiences of the characters onscreen for the audience.
So in summary, this movie will likely be compared to a lot of other movies out there. Some of the comparisons will be fair, some will not, but to take the film only on the basis of its tropes (of which there are many) leaves out how those tropes are presented. All movies and stories work with tropes, either by employing them or defying them. It's in the execution that makes the difference as to how an audience will respond to it-- whether attention was paid to the characters and an investment in having the audience care about them is paramount for me. It's clear the filmmakers here cared about Hiccup and Toothless and their bond is the biggest focus in the film. That's why it works as well as it does, and that's why any of it means anything. For me, the execution here was good. They cared about the characters, they cared about what they were trying to say, and they cared about whether or not the audience cared about the same things.